Post-COVID film production to favour digital location scouting and studio shoots
- Cinema & Video questioned location managers, line producers and film commissioners over the trends most likely to change the location and production industry landscape over the coming years
Uncertain: this is still the best way to describe the situation of the “physical” production world within the wider, global audiovisual industry. Naturally, efforts are underway in all quarters, on the one hand to resume production activities, especially in countries which have been lucky and clever in their management of the epidemic (Iceland, Eastern Europe, New Zealand - at least in terms of this first wave of COVID-19), and on the other, to operationalise safety measures and protocols for visiting locations and working on sets.
In terms of cooperation/harmonisation of protocols and best practices, efforts have been initiated (the "Ten Commandments for Filming Safely", for example [read here], developed by the Czech Republic’s Association of Audiovisual Producers (APA) and also adopted by the European Film Commission Network), and countries have subsequently embarked upon “competitive positioning”: Iceland has seized on an endorsement, of sorts, from Netflix, who have resumed production activities in the Nordic nation (albeit with reduced crews); Slovakia is advertising the uninterrupted activity its sets have enjoyed and its exemption from the rule that actors wear masks; meanwhile, on the other side of the Ocean, the state of Montana is trying to relaunch Montana Studios in Hamilton, stressing that “the State’s death and infection rates are much lower than those of New Zealand” (Lynn-Wood Fields, the Studios’ marketing manager, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times). It’s not pretty, but it’s a legitimate competitive edge: previously, it was all about funds and incentives, now it’s deaths and infections.
But what might be more interesting to establish is whether any trends are emerging with the potential to deeply alter the landscape of the location and production industry over the coming years. We put this question to a number of professionals working in the field in various capacities (location managers, line producers, film commissioners, technology experts). We started with the process of choosing locations. Could we be witnessing an increasing reliance on immersive, digital scouting by way of augmented/virtual reality technology? “It’s a trend which already existed before” – says Geoff Wilcock, the Scottish manager of OpenBrolly.com, one of the leading companies in the digitalisation of locations and audiovisual logistics procedures – “we’ll see a growing number of people turning to digital and virtual scouting. We’re already seeing digital scouting packages being prepared, developed in collaboration with productions’ set design departments”.
Arie Bohrer, director of Location Austria, takes a more balanced approach. “Digital presentations of locations will clearly gain ground but, for the time being, they won’t replace the need for production teams to be physically present before making the final decision”. Adam Krentzman, an experienced producer and executive producer with a career as a CAA super-agent under his belt, is of a similar mindset.
One body to have carried out excellent, in-depth operational and reflective work on this topic is the Serbia Film Commission. “Production teams” – explains SFC’s executive director Milica Bozanic to Cinema & Video International – “know that they will need to spend more time on and pay more attention to the finer details in the scouting phase, which will involve the same safety precautions as required in production. I strongly support digital innovations linked to scouting. Remote scouting is already possible thanks to 360-degree cameras, set designers are already starting to use them. But, naturally, we’ll need to win over all key actors in the creative process, so as to involve them in the decisions we take using virtual spaces”.
One likely post-COVID-19 scenario, in terms of locations, is a preference for “protected” and controllable options, such as the use of studios rather than external locations. “It’s certainly a trend that we’re seeing, with an increasingly common and sophisticated use of backgrounds to simulate locations”, Bohrer observes. “Shooting in a studio might be a solution in terms of control” – Adam Krentzman believes – “but here in the US, for cost reasons, it wouldn’t be feasible for many independent productions”. For Milica Bozanic, the trend is clear: “All those projects which are starting up again here, in our country, are shot in studios or in one, closed location. Given the new procedures film crews have to follow, not moving between various locations makes it easier to stay safe. And it also saves on production time, which is already drawn out by hygienic measures”.
All of this could point in the direction of a possible re-centralisation of production, both in international terms and within individual countries, upending a trend which had established itself in recent years thanks to the efforts of the various Film Commissions, and regional and local incentives.
For film sets, “regulatory” activities are in full development and are yet to settle down. For example, London boroughs will soon be publishing safety guidelines for the British capital’s streets. Looking beyond what is now the new norm for any sector of production (masks, hand sanitiser, social distancing, measurement of body temperature), in general, the provisions seem to be geared towards a series of “recommendations” rather than impositions, from the authorities. But the application of these recommendation, and the certainty that they will be respected on film sets, could be of crucial importance in terms of insurance, which is now considered a decisive factor in almost all countries, not least in large international productions. Hence the provision, in many protocols, of a new production figure: a COVID Specialist or Safety Monitor, who would be responsible for ensuring safety protocols are followed correctly…and which is causing much confusion among sector professionals.
“It’s ridiculous” – asserts Mick Ratman, the doyen of location managers in the UK – “there’s already a Health and Safety Officer on set. Many productions won’t be able to afford it”. For Ratman, over-regulation should also be avoided, unless they want to hamper productions. “If we have to follow on-set procedures which are more rigid than those already in use in hospitals and healthcare facilities, we won’t pull through”.
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(Translated from Italian)
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